Monday musings on Australian literature: Science writing

If you’ve read my last post on the Griffyn Ensemble, you’ll know it is National Science Week here in Australia (13-21 August). Last year I wrote two Monday Musings for the week, one on novels featuring scientists, and the other on non-fiction science books. This year I thought I would write a little about science writing in general. Remember, though, this is not my area of expertise, so it will be a serendipitous post of bits and pieces.

Stephen Sarre, the scientist who inspired the Griffyn Ensemble’s concert, said about it

What I like about what Michael [Sollis] is doing is that he’s mixing science with art. He’s converting a scientific finding into a performance. It’s so important that scientists try to spread knowledge and merging science and art is wonderful.

Scientists in other words are keen to get their work known – and it is important. Not only does public interest, belief and support help them obtain funding, but we are of course the beneficiaries of their work. It’s useful for us to know, understand and be able to engage intelligently in what they are doing. Climate change, cancer cures, new light but strong building materials, and so on, all impact our lives.

Test Tubes

Test Tubes (Courtesy OCAL via

So, who is out there communicating science to us? Science journalists, for a start, but here in Australia we have a non-profit group called Australian Science Communicators (ASC). It was established in 1994 and its members include “scientists, teachers, journalists, writers, entertainers, students and other communicators who engage Australians (and people overseas) with science, technology and innovation”. A wide church in other words.

In this group, somewhere, are, yes, bloggers, and ASC’s website lists Australian science blogs. There are over 50 of them covering various interests such as “general science”, “climate science”, and “ecology”. I haven’t heard of ONE of them so I dipped in:

  • Espresso Science, written by Jenny Martin, a Lecturer in Science Communication at the University of Melbourne and a broadcaster at Melbourne’s 102.7 FM Triple R community radio. She hopes her “shots of science” will be as addictive as coffee. Her most recent post (10th August) is about memory, not about our usual concern with maintaining memory but about the way we make up memory or remember “what never happened”!
  • Paperbark Writer (love this name), described as Australian nature meeting science and art, and written by Paula Peters. She has a PhD in ecology and has worked in environmental agencies. On her about page she gives a passionate explanation for why she does what she does. The latest post (13th August) on her blog is about a program she did for Gympie National Gallery. Gympie is where I turned 5 – the first birthday I really remember.
  • Science Book a Day, “put together by George Aranda” who runs a science book club in Melbourne. Describing himself as a “science communicator” he says his aim is “to engage people in science via books”. Science, he argues, “isn’t about being told by scientists that ‘this is science’ but for people to build an understanding and engagement with science in their own way”. There are “10 great” posts, such as “10 great books about agriculture” and “10 great books on women in science”. And, of course, there are posts about individual books, the latest being (14 August) for the science fiction book, Peter Watts’ Blindsight.

Three’s enough to give you a flavour. You can click on the link above if you’d like to explore what looks like a pretty vibrant community. Some of the blogs are by “professional” scientists and some by enthusiasts, some aren’t recently active, but many are.

William Lawrence Bragg

(William) Lawrence Bragg, 1915, Public domain, courtesy Nobel foundation, via Wikimedia Commons

I also discovered in my research that there is a National Science Prize, named the Bragg UNSW Press Prize in honour of Australia’s first Nobel Laureates, physicists William Henry Bragg and his son, William Lawrence Bragg. The prize is for short pieces, up to 7000 words, of “non-fiction written for a non-specialist audience by a single author” and published in the previous year. Entries can include extracts from longer published works, including books but not from academic theses or conference papers. The winners are included in the university’s annual Best science writing anthology. The 2015 edition is my next reading group book so you’ll be hearing more on this one.

Previous winners of the prize include science journalist Christine Keneally, who won the 2015 Stella Prize with her book The invisible history of the human race; award-winning free-lance journalist Jo Chandler; and astronomer Fred Watson, about whom I have written before due to his involvement in Griffyn Ensemble concerts.

This isn’t the only science writing prize. There is also the Eureka Prize for Science Journalism which is sponsored by the Australian government and is “awarded to an Australian journalist or journalist team whose work is assessed as having most effectively communicated scientific or technological issues to the public”. It is part of a larger swag of science awards in different areas of science, and the list of winners and finalists names individuals or groups rather than specific journalistic works. For example, in 2014, the winner of the Australian Government Eureka Prize for Science Journalism was Sonya Pemberton of Genepool Productions, a television/documentarty production company. Their program Jabbed: Love, fear and vaccines apparently broke SBS records in 2013.

If you are interested in Australian science writing, Wikipedia has a category for Australian science writers. It’s not very extensive – Jo Chandler, for example, isn’t there, though she’s clearly a respected journalist – but is worth checking out.

In her introduction to Best Australian science writing 2015, Bianca Nogrady (whose The end I’ve reviewed here) wrote:

What a fabulous job it is to write about science. We get to gatecrash laboratories, hospitals, field sites, boardrooms, workshops, expeditions and zoos; peering over shoulders, pointing at complex bits of science and asking, ‘so, what does that do?’

She is active in the field of science writing and last year convened a panel which explored what she called “the knotty question of the intersection between science communication and science journalism”. Are they inclusive, or breeds apart? You can listen to the whole discussion at the link I’ve provided. As in other fields, social media is shaking up the field of science writing it seems. Nogrady’s view is that science communication (in its wider meaning) will continue but that the now-all-too-familiar challenge will be to sift the gold from the dross. I loved discovering another whole area of writing where passion is so evident.

I’ll conclude by returning to the University of New South Wales, home of the Bragg Prize and the annual science writing anthology. They say:

Good writing about science can be moving, funny, exhilarating or poetic, but it will always be honest and rigorous about the research that underlies it.

Have you read much science writing? If so, what have you read, and what has made it worthwhile (or not) for you?

20 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Science writing

  1. I don’t read many science related books, but when I do, I generally enjoy them because I learn so much. (ex: The Clockwork Universe by Edward Dolnick)

    I love that first blog you pointed out: Espresson Science. Thanks for the link!

  2. I do like to read about science, especially when it deals with the workings of the brain. I do enjoy reading the best science stories for the year, and Why is Uranus Upside Down by Fred Watson is one of my favourite books. I also receive the Science Daily: Mind and Brain News. However, I cannot and do not understand complicated science information. Thanks for the list of other science bloggers, I will check them out. Science week is being celebrated here in Melbourne schools, and was on the news last night. It is fantastic that young children are been encouraged to get involved in science projects..

    • I’ve heard Watson speak a few times Meg but I’ve never read him. If he writes as engagingly as he speaks then his books would be great as you find.

      There’s quite a bit this week on the ABC focusing on science too Meg. I love the things they do with this week.

  3. *blush* Despite The Spouse and my father being scientists, my NF shelves are bereft of science books, and I’m going to blame Stephen Hawkin’s Brief history of Time. It was widely touted as being written for people without a science background, but I found it incomprehensible and gave up (after a good, serious try).
    But I will contribute a kind of science writing that I love, and that’s botanical illustration (I’ve reviewed a few on my blog) and science illustration. I reviewed The Art of Science, Remarkable natural history illustrations from Museum Victoria, by John Kean and was fascinated to learn that science illustration can show more than a photo can because, for example, they can render 3D as 2D (See
    For children there’s also a series of books from DK which illustrate the innards of ships and other complex machines, not quite as much fun as the models they used to have on display at the old Melbourne Museum where you could see how machines worked by pressing a button and seeing pistons go up and down etc. But still fascinating….

    • Haha, Lisa, you’re a braver person than I. I didn’t even try it. I think of all the science, physics is the most incomprehensible to me. I can often grasp it initially but it rarely sticks – besides the very basic stuff that’s useful in our day to day lives.

      I agree re botany. One idea I had for this post, but I think I’ll save it for next Science Week, was biographies of scientists, and here of course the first ones that came to me were of the botanists. Maybe I could just do botanists next year and then string out a series on other sciences in coming years! That’s an idea!

      I know those DK books. They are beautifully and engagingly presented. I bought a body one for our family with the kids were young, but donated it recently. What I need to know these days is all on the internet! But for kids, pouring through those books would still be of great pleasure I imagine,

      • Yes, it occurred to me that I have read a few bios of scientists, but not recently, except for the botanical artists like Georgina Molloy. But before the blog, I read a few by Simon Winchester e.g. The Map That changed the World (about the geologist William Smith) and Dava Sobel’s one about John Harrison and the discovery of the chronometer for measuring longitude. Oh, and I nearly forgot, I have reviewed one, there’s Jane Rawson’s Handbook for Surviving Climate Change which is applied science, I suppose…

  4. We used to subscribe to Dick Smith’s Australian Geographic for the kids, don’t suppose it’s still coming out. Must ask geology daughter what she’s doing for her lot. Like Lisa, A Brief History of Time might be the last science book I read. I used to be interested but Literature got in the way. You’ve provided a great summary though – more for me to feel guilty about not reading.

    • Yes, we got that for a little while, as did my Ma-in-law. I think it stopped but I’m not sure.

      I have read a couple of science books in the last decade or so, mostly about life and death, including Bianca Nogrady’s The end, and Mary Roach’s Stiff.

      • I am not very good at reading popular science books and I’m afraid I know that A Brief History Of Time would be utterly beyond me. I did enjoy Bill Bryson’s pop science book but that was science as lite as can be! I can get something out of science writing in a smaller format as in the essays of Stephen Jay Gould and in anthologies of science writing. Science writing does have so much to offer the reader.

        • Oh good, Ian, I’m glad I’m not the only one who felt that way about Hawkins. I must say, I’m enjoying the essays in the anthology I’m reading – but then I do rather like essays in general, so I was looking forward to reading it.

  5. I love science writing! I very much enjoyed Brian Greene’s Fabric of the Cosmos many years ago. He clearly had a great time using the The Simpsons to explain various aspects of string theory and quantum physics. Also he leaves most of the math out of the main text and puts it in the notes so those who want it can have it and the rest of us aren’t left overwhelmed by it.

  6. New South’s annual Best Science Writing anthology is well worth reading – and the essay form means there is no getting bogged down in details! I believe the CSIRO is beginning a program of publishing science books for children (they are producing a book by one of my friends, that’s how I know). Like Lisa, I think Simon Winchester’s books are always good reading, too.

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